Four years ago, the late historian Steven Ambrose took his rawhide-tassel jacket on a lecture swing through the Western states, warning of "crowds beyond any of our imagining" when the bicentennial of the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition got under way. State tourism agencies from St. Louis to Oregon rejoiced. But Indian tribes — cited in numerous surveys as at the very top of tourists’ "must-see" lists — were somewhat less eager to embrace the promised tourism windfall on the historic occasion.
When the Corps of Discovery first came
through 200 years ago, the tribes gave it food, hospitality and
directions. If the Indians had been less friendly — if the
Nez Perce, for example, had rebuffed or killed the emaciated white
men who stumbled out of the Rockies in 1805 — perhaps the
onslaught of disease, war and fences that followed, destroying so
many Indian lives in the West, might have been slowed, or even
So perhaps we can sympathize with the
descendents of the Lakota, Chinook and other tribes along the
route, who come off today as slightly reluctant hosts. Their take
on L&C; is a little different from Ambrose’s heroic
narrative in Undaunted Courage, or the majestic helicopter swoops
in Ken Burns’ documentary on the expedition. President Thomas
Jefferson sent the expedition out to map, gather naturalist
observations, foster trade with the Indians, and trump Great
Britain’s claims to the Northwest — as if European
imperial powers were the only ones with a claim. But to many of the
Indians they met, Lewis and Clark were "just two individuals who
were lost and came through our territory — a couple of snots,
talking real tough," says Louie Pitt, a member of the Wasco Tribe
on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon.
that should wake up the sleepy busload of senior citizens just in
from Dubuque. "And after you’ve heard our side of the story,
folks, this way to the casino!"
The tidal wave of
travelers predicted by Ambrose has yet to materialize, but
there’s a steady stream of fiftyish history buffs and
car-camping families traveling to L&C; sites in the West.
According to a "Tribal Tourism Toolkit" put out by the National
Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, these mostly
older, mostly car-driving travelers want history, culture and
nature — a West of the imagination — and the best place
to find it, they figure, is on reservations, bypassed by modernity.
But visitors won’t see buffalo robes on the Plains,
or the brimming-with-life tepee villages, or the exuberant songs
and dances after a successful hunt. They’ll find a few fine
museums, and perhaps a powwow now and then, but they’ll also
see trailers and poverty and averted faces. And if you’re
looking in Indian Country for well-appointed motel rooms and fine
wine with your dinner — another goal of today’s
travelers, according to studies — you’ll likely have to
stay at a casino resort.
Ambrose warned of the tourist
onslaught four years ago, because he knew most of the little
mountain communities, historic sites and Indian reservations were
unprepared. Campgrounds in the White Cliffs stretch of the Missouri
River were short on toilets. The dirt road over Lemhi Pass between
Montana and Idaho had no room for tour buses to turn around. Indian
reservations, in particular, lacked most of the accommodations,
infrastructure and interpretation travelers would seek.
But the federal government had a plan.
it’s about the tribes," declared Gerard Baker, a towering,
energetic Hidatsa Indian who put together the Corps of Discovery II
for the National Park Service. The idea was to create a traveling
tent show like the 19th century Chatauqua circuit, with Native
voices at every stop to tell a more rounded version of the
expedition’s story. Baker’s bicentennial would broaden
the nation’s perspective on the course of empire: There would
be a "tent of many voices" at officially sanctioned "signature
events," and federal money, too. Tribes would get funding for new
visitor centers, hospitality training and free publicity.
It sounded too good to be true. And it was — at least, the
money part was, as I found when I visited reservations along the
Western part of the Lewis and Clark route earlier this year. The
$30 million Baker was looking for from the government never fully
materialized, no surprise to tribal leaders. The National Council
for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial floundered at first, and much
of the funding went to non-Indian events and exhibits. But Baker
persisted, tracking down equipment donations and foundation
support, and a Council of Tribal Advisors drew Indian leaders into
the tent. The traveling show opened at Monticello — Thomas
Jefferson's home outside Charlottesville, Va. — earlier this
year, and has begun following the expedition route across the
country, with signature events featuring lectures, music,
re-enactments and exhibits. Hundreds of thousands attended in
Virginia, Illinois and St. Louis; as the show moves West, where
events will be hosted by reservations like Fort Berthold in North
Dakota and the Nez Perce in Idaho, no one knows how many will
Baker, who is now superintendent at Mount
Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, says his mission was
less about money than about telling the story correctly, by getting
tribal representatives to give their perspective on the expedition
at every stop. "We downsized it to about half of what it might have
been. But what the public sees is an excellent product, and we got
the tribes involved," Baker says.
Involved, maybe, but
not always enthused. Alan Pinkham of the Nez Perce, who was on the
bicentennial council when I talked to him in 2001, said: "We
don’t want a thousand tourists each picking up a rock and
taking it home." One member of the Standing Rock Sioux, a tribe
that has seen its ancient villages along the Missouri River looted
by artifact hunters, called Baker "a government spy with braids."
But others saw an economic opportunity, and found rationales for
Roberta Conner, a member of the Umatilla
Tribe in Central Oregon, was fully aware that tribes were being
asked "to commemorate the advent of our demise" during the
bicentennial. Her own tribe, which lived on the upper Columbia
River in 1805, was described in the explorers’ journals as
"fearful" and "agitated." But she wanted to use the event as a hook
to "invite folks in for Lewis and Clark, but make sure it’s
not all they leave with." The problem for many tribes is that folks
in faraway states — 22 of the states have no resident Indian
tribes — don’t even know they still exist. That could
undermine national understanding and support for the treaty and
trust relationships essential to Indian survival in today’s
During the buildup to the bicentennial, Conner,
who now runs the tribe’s impressive Tamástslikt Cultural
Institute, researched the period through stories from elders of the
three tribes on the reservation — the Umatilla, the Cayuse
and the Walla Walla. She learned, she says, that 200 years ago, "We
lived in abundance, not scarcity." She wasn’t participating
in the Lewis and Clark commemoration just for the tourists —
she was doing it for Indian kids, who know only the more recent
times of poverty and despair, she told me with her voice cracking.
"We’re still trying to get people to understand why
this isn’t just a party," says Conner. "We want a national
dialogue about what’s happened over the last 200 years, and
how the next 200 should be different."
wonder why tribes would hesitate to embrace the tourism
opportunities of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial just need to
consider the tribes’ experiences over the last two centuries.
Resources such as minerals and water have often been excised from
reservations, or squandered by U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs
mismanagement. Industries and jobs have gone to non-Indian
neighbors. Tribes are left with marginal enterprises and legal
loopholes, like tax-free cigarettes or gambling compacts, which
sometimes conflict with traditional values.
not a big fan of casinos myself," says Louie Pitt, at Warm Springs.
"It’s a necessary evil, like cutting trees down."
With that ambivalence, the less smoky and addictive forms of
tourism — the prospect of visitors with cultural, outdoor and
historic interests — might seem more attractive to tribes as
a way of growing their economies, even if the less-than-beloved
Lewis and Clark come as part of the package.
have survived against all odds in part because of the closed cocoon
of reservation life, where language and tradition are often
withheld like priestly secrets from the dominant culture. And
tribes know what all of us in rural Western towns know about the
"new" economy of recreation and tourism: It’s mostly seasonal
and low-wage, and sometimes it’s demeaning.
fact, Indians know a lot more than they’re generally given
credit for about economic development. If you talk to council
members, planners and other officials on reservations, you find a
savvy cadre with well-processed data, taking aim at the future.
Despite the visible poverty on many reservations, tribal leaders
have taken income from timber, oil and gas, reparations and other
sources and invested in studies to guide them toward new economies.
On visits this year to reservations along the Lewis and
Clark route, I found long-range planning efforts leading to an
array of new enterprises: The Nez Perce are breeding their own line
of high-quality horses similar to the Appaloosas of their
ancestors; the Blackfeet in Montana are taking advantage of their
mountainous environment with wind energy projects; the Warm Springs
Tribe is guiding kayakers from its Kah-Nee-Tah resort; and the tiny
Makah Reservation on the Olympic Peninsula is developing an
innovative wave energy generating station offshore.
tribes work with consultants and, despite their urgent need to
solve immediate problems, they proceed with caution. "We
don’t have the luxury of most Americans to mess up a place
and move on," says Louie Pitt.
The Lewis and Clark
Bicentennial, to many of these tribes, is just a stepping stone,
another way of generating income and outside interest, so they can
move ahead with more ambitious, and suitable, projects. At the same
time, it’s also an opportunity to shed the old cloaks of
invisibility and secrecy that no longer serve the tribes.
"The bicentennial helps with recognition, spreading the word that
we are still here, our culture survives," says Gary Johnson,
chairman of the Chinook Tribe, the people who hosted the Corps of
Discovery at the mouth of the Columbia. The Chinook are after much
bigger game than tourists or media play. They are trying to regain
federal recognition, an important designation for a tribe, because
it leads to participation in various programs for housing,
education, health services and, yes, economic development.
The tribe got its wish in the last days of the Clinton
administration. But in 2003, just days after President George W.
Bush had invited the Chinook to a White House bicentennial dinner,
his Interior Department reversed course, ruling that the tribe
didn’t meet the criteria for recognition (HCN, 8/19/02:
Chinook tribe loses recognition). The tribe hasn’t given up:
It’s trying to get help from Congress, and watching the fall
election for signs of change. In the meantime, Gary Johnson’s
son has carved one of the long, dugout Chinook canoes that Lewis
had admired in his journal; it’s intended for Fort Clatsop
National Memorial Park.
The Chinook experience is a
reminder that "signature events" and "tents of many voices"
aren’t enough to bring Indian tribes back to the "nation to
nation" status they once held, when Lewis and Clark first arrived.
Most Indians are not satisfied to be merely entertainers or
interpreters for wealthy white tourists. The question is whether
they can reap some benefits from the bicentennial by deliberately
re-creating the hospitality they showed spontaneously 200 years ago
— while retaining their own higher goals, their search for
pride and identity.
"The bicentennial has brought us
allies and friends we wouldn’t have had otherwise," says
Roberta Conner. "But we’re still battling to get that
fundamental dialogue, and to talk about critical issues like
cultural resource protection, and habitat restoration. People are
worrying about signage and porta-potties. But it’s a
On the way home from my summer road trip, I
drove back along the Lewis and Clark route from the mouth of the
Columbia to Idaho, following the Clearwater River through the Nez
Perce Reservation toward Lolo Pass. Along the river, I stopped at
an attractive park and hiked to a huge rock, which the Nez Perce
believe to be the hardened heart of a legendary monster. Driving
again, I passed a red pickup by the roadside, with a hand-lettered
sign: "SALMON 4 SALE." Two hundred years ago, the Nez Perce made a
gift of fish to the starving explorers of the Corps of Discovery.
As Conner asks: How will the next 200 years be different?